Biden reignites debate over travel bans

The Biden administration is facing heavy criticism for its decision to impose a travel ban on South Africa and several nearby countries in the wake of the omicron variant, reigniting a debate from some of the earliest days of the pandemic.

The newest variant has been discovered in more than a dozen countries, but so far, officials have limited the ban to travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

The new measures, which took effect Monday, reimposed country-based restrictions that officials had ended just weeks earlier in favor of a policy that requires all foreign nationals arriving in the U.S. to be fully vaccinated.

Picking and choosing countries based on infections is arbitrary, experts say, because the disease is already entrenched in the U.S. Now, all foreign visitors must be vaccinated, except those who have traveled from eight specific countries, who are banned. 

Experts argue that bans are an ineffective knee-jerk reaction, especially those as porous as the latest one from the U.S., which exempts American citizens and permanent residents and doesn't require any additional quarantine or contact tracing.

President Biden on Monday defended the travel restrictions, saying they give people time to prepare.

A travel ban "can slow the speed of omicron, but it cannot prevent it," Biden said in remarks at the White House. "It gives us time to take more actions, to move quicker, to make sure people understand they have to get vaccinated, to get boosted."

Top administration health officials have said they hope to use the time to study the variant, given that there isn't a lot yet known about it — such as whether it causes mild or severe disease or whether it is more transmissible. 

“If you're going to do the travel ban the way we've done now and that we're implementing right now, utilize the time that you're buying to fill in the gaps,” Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, said Sunday during an interview on ABC's “This Week.”

“And by time buying ... you learn more about the virus, you learn what its relationship is to the antibodies induced by vaccines, and, above all, you use this time to really, really put your pedal to the floor and get people vaccinated and get people boosted,” he added.

Still, the latest ban is igniting fierce pushback, harking back to when the Trump administration moved to ban travelers from China early on in the pandemic.

Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said it seems the U.S. hasn't learned from the failures of the Trump-era ban.

By the time the travel ban was put in place, the virus had already spread through most of the world, and was likely already circulating undetected in the U.S.

Like the current restrictions on African nations, the China travel ban applied only to foreign nationals, with no restrictions on U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

"Putting in this kind of travel restriction doesn't seem to make a huge difference in terms of the risk of importation just because of, you know, the incompleteness of it and restricting it to certain geography when we know that cases are being discovered all over the place right now, and travel is not restricted from those other places," Michaud said.

The World Health Organization's (WHO) Regional Office for Africa on Sunday called for borders to remain open, even as an increasing number of countries around the world impose flight bans from southern African countries.

"Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based," the organization said. 

Even as more countries are added to flight ban lists, the variant has been detected in only two southern African countries, the WHO said.

"With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity. COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions," WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said.

Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, said in a CNN interview Monday she thinks the restrictions were the correct idea but incomplete.

"We should really be quarantining and retesting all travelers. We are allowing permanent residents and American citizens to return from these southern African countries, which we should, but then we should also have mandatory quarantine and retesting for them as well; otherwise, there are just too many loopholes and we're not really accomplishing our goal, which is to contain omicron and prevent it from getting into this country," Wen said.

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